Tuskegee Airman Rice finally getting his due

Tuskegee Airman William Rice holds his Congressional Gold Medal. Rice received the medal in 2007. — SUBMITTED PHOTO

Tuskegee airman William Rice dreamed of being a pilot since he was a kid. Born and raised in Nether Providence Township in Delaware County, Rice’s dream became a reality when he became one of the first Black military aviators in the United States Armed Forces.

“I knew when I was a child that I wanted to fly airplanes,” he said. “I use to see them every day and I decided if I ever got the chance I would like to fly one. Little did I know that opportunity would come in World War II as I would become a pilot for the 332nd Fighter Group.”

Rice was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Army in 1942. While Rice was accepted, the Army later told him he had to wait for their phone call. In April 1943, Rice was drafted and sent to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training.

The Tuskegee Airmen trained at the U.S. Army airfield near Tuskegee, Ala., and at the Tuskegee Institute. About 992 Black pilots participated in the training and later flew P-39, P-40, P-47 and P-51 aircraft in more than 15,000 sorties in North Africa, Sicily and Europe. Rice graduated on Aug. 4, 1944.

“It was different living in the North and then having to go down south,” he said. “When I got to Louisville, Ky., I had to get off the Pullman train and go into coach until I got down to Mississippi. And once I got there, I never went off the base.

“From Biloxi we went to the Tuskegee Institute campus in Alabama for a couple of months where we took some college training, and then we went back to the base there for preflight training.”

Rice was a pilot in the 332nd Fighter Group. In 1944, the 332nd Fighter group was sent overseas to Ramitelli Airfield on the Adriatic coast. From Ramitelli, the 332nd escorted heavy strategic bombers into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Germany — firing on enemy planes approaching the bombers and on anti-aircraft artillery on the ground.  

The Allies called these airmen “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint applied on the tail section of their P-51 Mustang fighter planes. None of the planes the Tuskegee Airmen flew were new planes.

“When the new models came in, the other air groups got the planes first,” he said. “The ones that they were no longer using got sent to us, so all of our planes were second hand planes, but we had good mechanics who kept them running.

“One time when I was returning from a mission, when I got to low altitude I turned on my air ducts and the hydraulic fluid just came out and covered my whole windshield. I couldn’t see. I had to open up the side windows so that I could outside. I didn’t have any brakes and no flaps. I had to drop the landing gear down so that I could land. I had to come in hot because I had no flaps.”

Rice flew in 34 combat missions during his tenure with the Tuskegee Airmen. He flew every mission, he said, without a working tachometer.

“The only thing that was wrong with my plane was that I did not have a tachometer,” he said. “It did not work. I flew all my missions with no tachometer and the day I had to turn that plane in, the tachometer started working.”

His most memorable mission, Rice said, was in Berlin on March 24, 1945. The Mission to Berlin was the longest flight in USAF (then the U.S. Army Air Corps) history. The purpose of the mission was to provide close escort for the B-17 bombers attacking the Daimler/Benz Tank Assembly Plant in Berlin Germany.

“I was scheduled to fly on that day,” he said. “We were flying out of southern Italy across the Alps into Germany. I put in about seven hours flying time in that mission, but it was nice.”

Rice was discharged in 1946. When he came home, there was no recognition for what he and his comrades did in World War II. It took decades before the Tuskegee Airmen received accolades for their work. Rice received his Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

“When we came home there were no parades, awards, or write-ups in the newspapers,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t know how much we contributed in that war. I’m humbled that we are getting a lot of recognition now. For many of us it’s long overdue. The time I had with those guys will always be with me; I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Today, Rice still lives in Delaware County with his wife of 61 years, Minnie. He has five children, 8 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. His hobbies include listening to jazz, vegetable and flower gardening, coin collecting and collecting World War II memorabilia.

Tuskegee airman William Rice dreamed of being a pilot since he was a kid. Born and raised in Nether Providence Township in Delaware County, Rice’s dream became a reality when he became one of the first Black military aviators in the United States Armed Forces.

“I knew when I was a child that I wanted to fly airplanes,” he said. “I use to see them every day and I decided if I ever got the chance I would like to fly one. Little did I know that opportunity would come in World War II as I would become a pilot for the 332nd Fighter Group.”

Rice was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Army in 1942. While Rice was accepted, the Army later told him he had to wait for their phone call. In April 1943, Rice was drafted and sent to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training.

The Tuskegee Airmen trained at the U.S. Army airfield near Tuskegee, Ala., and at the Tuskegee Institute. About 992 Black pilots participated in the training and later flew P-39, P-40, P-47 and P-51 aircraft in more than 15,000 sorties in North Africa, Sicily and Europe. Rice graduated on Aug. 4, 1944.

“It was different living in the North and then having to go down south,” he said. “When I got to Louisville, Ky., I had to get off the Pullman train and go into coach until I got down to Mississippi. And once I got there, I never went off the base.

“From Biloxi we went to the Tuskegee Institute campus in Alabama for a couple of months where we took some college training, and then we went back to the base there for preflight training.”

Rice was a pilot in the 332nd Fighter Group. In 1944, the 332nd Fighter group was sent overseas to Ramitelli Airfield on the Adriatic coast. From Ramitelli, the 332nd escorted heavy strategic bombers into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland and Germany — firing on enemy planes approaching the bombers and on anti-aircraft artillery on the ground.  

The Allies called these airmen “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint applied on the tail section of their P-51 Mustang fighter planes. None of the planes the Tuskegee Airmen flew were new planes.

“When the new models came in, the other air groups got the planes first,” he said. “The ones that they were no longer using got sent to us, so all of our planes were second hand planes, but we had good mechanics who kept them running.

“One time when I was returning from a mission, when I got to low altitude I turned on my air ducts and the hydraulic fluid just came out and covered my whole windshield. I couldn’t see. I had to open up the side windows so that I could outside. I didn’t have any brakes and no flaps. I had to drop the landing gear down so that I could land. I had to come in hot because I had no flaps.”

Rice flew in 34 combat missions during his tenure with the Tuskegee Airmen. He flew every mission, he said, without a working tachometer.

“The only thing that was wrong with my plane was that I did not have a tachometer,” he said. “It did not work. I flew all my missions with no tachometer and the day I had to turn that plane in, the tachometer started working.”

His most memorable mission, Rice said, was in Berlin on March 24, 1945. The Mission to Berlin was the longest flight in USAF (then the U.S. Army Air Corps) history. The purpose of the mission was to provide close escort for the B-17 bombers attacking the Daimler/Benz Tank Assembly Plant in Berlin Germany.

“I was scheduled to fly on that day,” he said. “We were flying out of southern Italy across the Alps into Germany. I put in about seven hours flying time in that mission, but it was nice.”

Rice was discharged in 1946. When he came home, there was no recognition for what he and his comrades did in World War II. It took decades before the Tuskegee Airmen received accolades for their work. Rice received his Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

“When we came home there were no parades, awards, or write-ups in the newspapers,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t know how much we contributed in that war. I’m humbled that we are getting a lot of recognition now. For many of us it’s long overdue. The time I had with those guys will always be with me; I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Today, Rice still lives in Delaware County with his wife of 61 years, Minnie. He has five children, 8 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. His hobbies include listening to jazz, vegetable and flower gardening, coin collecting and collecting World War II memorabilia.

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